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Rita Mae Brown Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Hanover, Pennsylvania, 1944. Education: University of Florida, Gainesville; New York University, B.A. 1968; New York School of Visual Arts, cinematography certificate 1968; Institute for Policy Studies, Washington, D.C., Ph.D. 1976. Career: Photo editor, Sterling Publishing Company, New York, 1969-70; lecturer in sociology, Federal City College, Washington, D.C., 1970-71. Since 1973 visiting member, faculty of feminist studies, Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont. Founding member, Redstockings radical feminist group, New York, 1970s. Awards: Best Variety Show award (TV Writers Guild), 1982; New York Public Library Literary Lion award, 1986; Outstanding Alumni, American Association of Community Colleges, 1999; Outstanding Alumna, Broward Community College, 1999. Agent: Wendy Weil Agency, 232 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016-2901, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Rubyfruit Jungle. Plainfield, Vermont, Daughters, 1973; London, Corgi, 1978.

In Her Day. Plainfield, Vermont, Daughters, 1976.

Six of One. New York, Harper, 1978; London, W.H. Allen, 1979.

Southern Discomfort. New York, Harper, 1982; London, SevernHouse, 1983.

Sudden Death. New York, Bantam, 1983.

High Hearts. New York and London, Bantam, 1986.

Bingo. New York, Bantam, 1988.

Wish You Were Here, with Sneaky Pie Brown. New York, Bantam, 1990.

Rest in Pieces, with Sneaky Pie Brown. New York, Bantam, 1992.

Venus Envy. New York, Bantam, 1993.

Dolley: A Novel of Dolley Madison in Love and War. New York, Bantam, 1994.

Murder at Monticello; or, Old Sins, with Sneaky Pie Brown. NewYork, Bantam, 1994.

Pay Dirt, or, Adventures at Ash Lawn, with Sneaky Pie Brown. NewYork, Bantam Books, 1995.

Riding Shotgun. New York, Bantam Books, 1996.

Murder, She Meowed, with Sneaky Pie Brown. New York, BantamBooks, 1996.

Murder on the Prowl, with Sneaky Pie Brown. New York, BantamBooks, 1998.

Cat on the Scent, with Sneaky Pie Brown. New York, Bantam Books, 1999.

Loose Lips. New York, Bantam Books, 1999.

Outfoxed. New York, Ballantine Books, 2000.

Pawing through the Past, with Sneaky Pie Brown. New York, Bantam Books, 2000.

Plays

Television and film scripts: I Love Liberty, with others, 1982; The Long Hot Summer, 1985; My Two Loves, 1986; The Alice Marble Story, 1986; Sweet Surrender, 1986; The Mists of Avalone, 1987; Table Dancing, 1987; The Girls of Summer, 1989; Selma, Lord, Selma, 1989; Rich Men, Single Women, 1989; The Thirty Nine Year Itch, 1989.

Poetry

The Hand That Cradles the Rock. New York, New York UniversityPress, 1971.

Songs to a Handsome Woman. Baltimore, Diana Press, 1973.

Poems. Freedom, California, Crossing Press, 1987.

Other

A Plain Brown Rapper (essays). Baltimore, Diana Press, 1976.

Starting from Scratch: A Different Kind of Writers Manual. NewYork, Bantam, 1988.

Rita Will: Memoir of a Literary Rabble-Rouser. New York, Bantam Books, 1997.

*

Critical Study:

Rita Mae Brown by Carol M. Ward, New York, Twayne, 1993; Ladies Laughing: Wit as Control in Contemporary American Women Writers by Barbara Levy, Amsterdam, Netherlands, Gordon and Breach, 1997.

* * *

For a writer whose novels appear to be exclusively comic southern fiction, Rita Mae Brown has, in fact, produced a varied body of work. At the most basic level, her novels celebrate a particular image of the southern United States of America; they are funny, sassy, full of geographically specific language—expletives in particular seem to be strictly of the South rather than the North—and populated with hosts of astonishingly colorful characters.

Brown's writing is so particular to its location that her novels Bingo and especially High Hearts have led to her being accused of falling into the trap of depicting the South as "wrong but romantic" and the North as "right but repulsive." This did not preclude her from being tipped seriously for the commission to write the sequel to Gone with the Wind; in fact, it was probably a main factor in the (ultimately unfounded) rumor that she would write it.

Considering the great success of her southern novels, it may be surprising to discover that her real claim to popular adulation is her parallel and entwined career as foremother of the modern lesbian novel. She is not an experimental writer in the style of Monique Wittig or Jeanette Winterson; she is not a stream of consciousness/coming out writer like Verena Stefan or early Michelle Roberts; but her lasting fame among lesbian readers rests primarily on her first novel Rubyfruit Jungle which charted hilariously the coming-out process of a young Southerner called Molly Bolt—a joke untranslatable outside of American carpentry circles—and her consequent discovery and assertion that a) it was cool to be queer, b) the only problem is other people's reactions, and c) the rest of the world had better just get used to it.

In these heady days of (fairly) free expression of sexuality, it is difficult to realize just what a bombshell Brown dropped onto a world in which the most famous lesbian novel was The Well of Loneliness and lesbians in other fiction almost always recanted, threw themselves into a purifying orgy of self-sacrifice or—more frequently—committed suicide in despair. It is not stretching the point to say that for the overwhelming majority of lesbians, Rubyfruit Jungle was the first book we ever read which said it was OK.

After such a success with a first novel, it was hardly surprising that her second In Her Day was to many a disappointment. It tries to deal with the still thorny issues of lesbian-feminism versus "political correctness," older and younger women, class, race and so on. All of this in a very slim volume. The book was published in one edition by a small US feminist press and disappeared without trace—except to obsessive collectors—until two years ago when it was republished. Interestingly, its long absence was the choice of the author who felt it was an inferior novel.

Brown's use of her own life for fiction is fascinating. While it is true that characters appear in Rubyfruit Jungle, Six of One and the latter's sequel Bingo who are clearly based on the same autobiographical raw material, the most obvious example is Sudden Death. With information clearly gathered during her highly public relationship with Martina Navratilova, Brown dissects the world of women's professional tennis with the satiric scalpel of an expert. A favorite game for some time after its publication was for the reader to try and identify the real-life models on which the characters were based.

Attentive readers, however, have found a shift in political values in Brown's novels; it appears to be towards the right whilst retaining an undying feminism. A seeming contradiction, but then the Women's Movement had always intended to be a broad church. This reading is suggested by some of the apparently pro-Confederate sentiments in High Hearts and less than liberal stances taken by her main characters in Bingo.

Her writer's manual Starting from Scratch is probably best explained by her own assertion that she was broke after her messy divorce from Martina and needed to write something quickly. It is most memorable for being probably the first writer's manual since the 19th century which suggests that a putative writer must do nothing until they have spent some years mastering both Latin and Ancient Greek.

Wish You Were Here, her 1990 novel, marks something of a progression. Her novels have always been jointly dedicated to her animals but this, a competent if not particularly spectacular thriller, claims to have been co-written by her cat. Brown has continued in this tradition and brought us a number of popular murder stories called "Mrs. Murphy Mysteries." Rest in Pieces, Murder at Monticello: Or Old Sins, Pay Dirt, Or Adventures at Ash Lawn, Murder, She Meowed, Cat on the Scent, Murder on the Prowl, and Pawing through the Past have been all co-written by Rita Mae Brown and her cat, Sneaky Pie Brown. The protagonists of the murder stories, a tiger cat (Mrs. Murphy), a Welsh Corgi (Tucker), and a thirty-something postmistress (Mary Minor "Harry" Haristeen), live together in the small town of Crozet, Virginia, and attempt to solve the murders happening around them. In Brown's mysteries, animals, which make their witty comments and observations in italics, are always one step ahead of their human counterparts. Thus, Brown demonstrates her undying love for animals and respect for their natural wisdom. In 1999, Brown's prolific cat "published" (with Brown's co-authorship) its own cookbook, Sneaky Pie's Cookbook for Mystery Lovers, which introduces recipes for cats, dogs, and humans.

As stated before, however, Brown's scope includes much more than mysteries. As a lesbian author, Brown is to be celebrated alongside a writer such as Armistead Maupin for proving that queer life also has its hilarious side when the straight world lets it out. After the amusing as well as provocative Rubyfruit Jungle, Brown returned to the issue of lesbianism in Venus Envy. She lets her heroine, who is supposedly dying of lung cancer, come out with her sexual orientation as well as reveal her attitudes and opinions about others. When the 35-year-old gallery owner Frazier finds out that her diagnosis is a result of a computer mistake, she has to face the reality and the consequences of her disclosures. Once again, in Venus Envy Brown demonstrates her superb feel for satire, comicality, and nuances of the English language.

Rita Mae Brown does not forget her southern characters, though, and in Loose Lips, she brings back the Hunsenmeier sisters, whom she had already introduced in Bingo and Six of One. With the middle-aged Juts and Wheezie, Brown returns in an amusing manner to the atmosphere of a small southern town, touching on complex issues of adoption, friendship, and faithfulness. Riding Shotgun discusses similar issues in a story of the recently widowed Cig Blackwood, who, while fox hunting, travels back in time to the year 1699. Meeting her ancestors, Cig learns about love, betrayal, and, most importantly, herself. Brown also goes back in time in—for her atypical—a historical novel, Dolley: A Novel of Dolley Madison in Love and War. In this novel, Brown recreates a crucial year (1814) in the life of the fourth American president's wife during the conflict between America and Britain.

In her novel Outfoxed, Brown brings together the majority of her favorite subjects. Even though writing a murder story, this time Rita Mae Brown does not bring forth Mrs. Murphy to solve the mystery. Yet, the small Virginian town is full of speaking animals (hounds, foxes, birds, and horses), which become successful detectives in the murder case of Fontaine Buruss. Brown's passion for foxhunting is evident in the story, as she describes the sport and its elaborate rituals with precision and sometimes even exhausting detail. Again, this novel depicts, with a bit of nostalgia, the southern mentality, charm, and gallantry. Brown focuses her attention on the southern tradition, ancestry, land, and firm human ties, creating a charismatic and respected matriarchal character, Sister Jane Arnold, M.F.H. (Master of Fox Hunting).

In all her novels, Rita Mae Brown skillfully connects the autobiographical and the fictional. With its many specific details, Brown's autobiography, Rita Will: Memoir of a Literary Rabble-Rouser, becomes an invaluable source of information for readers interested in Brown's life and work. Brown does not shy away from any subject, discussing her poverty-stricken childhood with her adoptive parents, her struggle for public acceptance as a lesbian, and her love affairs with Martina Navratilova, Fannie Flagg, and Judy Nelson. With her typical sense of humor, she uncovers in front of the readers her life experiences, drawing together all that she loves and respects: southerners, close relationships between humans and animals, and meaningful, fulfilling work.

—Linda Semple

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Iva Korinkova

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